The draft law pursues the laudable aim to prevent violence and the use of quack therapies against homosexuals, but may criminalize legitimate religious counseling.
by Massimo Introvigne
Christian and other religious denominations in the Australian state of Victoria are expressing concern that a draft law known as Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill (2020), which has passed the Legislative Assembly and is expected to be approved by the Legislative Council as well, may create problems for freedom of religion. Catholics and Presbyterians are especially critical of the proposed legislation, while Anglicans and Baptists have expressed a more favorable opinion about the aims of the law.
The matter of the draft bill is delicate, and should be understood against a broader background. The “conversion practices” the draft law intends to prohibit are those intended to change a person’s sexual identity, most commonly from LGBTQ to heterosexual. Often, as the law mentions, these practices are carried out for religious motivations, because several religions regard sex outside a man-woman marriage as a sin, and in a religious context.
There is indeed a problem, not only in the state of Victoria, when LGBTQ adults are kidnapped in the streets, often by or on behalf of their parents, detained, and submitted to “counseling,” sometimes accompanied by violence, until their captors are satisfied that their sexual orientation has been “corrected.” It also happens that minors are submitted to similar violent practices. This is similar to “deprogramming,” used by “de-convert” persons who have joined what their parents regard as a “cult.” Indeed, in South Korea, the same fundamentalist Christian groups support “deprogramming” from “cults” and “deprogramming” from homosexuality. Leading religious figures throughout the world have asked that such practices be outlawed.
The Christian and other religious groups who came together to express their concern for the Victorian draft law clarified that they join the legislators in condemning violent practices. They also do not support discrimination of homosexuals, nor folk or quack psychotherapies aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation that may cause serious harm to those submitted to them.
But there are some aspects of the law they consider problematic. First, they regard prison terms up to ten years imposed on those who engage in “conversion practices” as excessive. Legislators have answered that only draconian penalties would work, but critics maintain that no evidence has been offered that the problem is so widespread and dramatic in Victoria.
Second, the law includes among “conversion practices” “a religious practice including, but not limited to, a prayer based practice” (section 5.3), and clarifies that the consent of the person submitted to the practice does not make it legal.
This is the point that has raised more objections by religious organizations. Victoria’s then Attorney General Jill Hennessy tried to address them on November 26, 2020, during the second reading of the bill in the Legislative Assembly. Hennessy gave as an example of a prohibited practice “A person going to a religious leader seeking advice on their feelings of same-sex attraction, and the religious leader telling them they are broken and should live a celibate life for the purpose of changing or suppressing their same-sex attraction.” She went on to comment that, “While some religious practices may meet the definition of change or suppression practice in certain circumstances, the definition had been carefully crafted, and is not designed to capture all religious practices or teachings or to prevent people seeking religious counsel. For example, the definition of a change or suppression practice would not capture conduct where, for example, a person goes to a religious leader seeking advice on their feelings of same-sex attraction, and the religious leader only informs this person that they consider such feelings to be contrary to the teachings of their faith, and does so only to convey their interpretation of those teachings and not to change or suppress the person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Victorian law requires a mandatory human rights evaluation of each law. In this case, the evaluation included the comment that, “Although broad, the definition has been carefully designed to exclude conduct that is not directed at an individual, to reduce its impact on religious practices such as sermons,” and that “general discussions of religious beliefs around sexual orientation or gender identity that aim to explain these beliefs and not change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity” will remain permitted.
It is good that sermons remain protected, although Hennessy also said in her second reading speech that, “conduct generally directed—such as sermons expressing a general statement of belief—is not captured. However, such conduct may be considered as part of the Legislative Assembly’s ongoing inquiry into anti-vilification protections.”
However, with respect to persons who seek counsel and prayers for their individual case from their religious leaders, the concerns remain. It seems that, if a LGBTQ individual—but perhaps also somebody whose inclination is towards a number of contemporary sexual relations with persons of the opposite sex—visits a priest, pastor, or religious counselor seeking advice about sexuality, the latter has the right to explain in general that the teachings of his or her religion recommend that any sexual activity only takes place within the context of a monogamous marriage between a man and a woman. But, if the religious leader goes one step further, and urges the parishioner to change his or her conduct, this may be constructed as changing or suppressing the parishioner’s sexual orientation, and constituting a crime.
Note also the example given by the Attorney General, that suggesting to a homosexual person that she or he should “live a celibate life” would typically constitute the crime the new law tries to suppress. Although Catholic theologians and prelates have recently offered different positions and interpretations, the Catechism of the Catholic Church still teaches in its article 2359 that “homosexual persons are called to chastity,” and so are all unmarried Catholics for that matter. A priest loyal to article 2359, when consulted by a homosexual parishioner, can quote and explain the provision in general, but should refrain from applying it to the individual case before him. Clearly, during the daily pastoral practice, whether the forbidden line between general and particular has been crossed is almost impossible to establish.
Some churches in Victoria also complain that they had not been consulted before introducing a bill that clearly affect their normal pastoral activities. Most of the critics do not endorse quack conversion psychotherapies, nor do they condone the “deprogramming” of LGBTQ people (for the record, neither do I). What they ask is that, as did laws in other Australian states (a Queensland law, for instance, only mentions “mental health professionals” and seems to grant exceptions for religious counseling), the new bill should be amended to clarify that offering personal advice in accordance with the tenets of one religion to those who voluntarily seek it can never be considered a crime.